The Best Sunrise Hike on the Appalachian Trail
Finding the Trailhead
It was four in the morning when my alarm began to sound. I know what you’re thinking, and, no, it wasn’t by accident. This morning, I was going to hike the Appalachian Trail…..sort of. I was going to hike part of it, at least.
From our AirBnb at an old carriage house in Roanoke, it was only a twenty minute drive to the trailhead. From my research, I found that there were two ways to reach the viewpoint: The Appalachian Trail or the Firehouse Trail. Knowing how my last sunrise hike in unknown territory went, we decided to take the Firehouse Trail up and the Appalachian Trail down.
I heard that parking was a possible beast at the trailhead, but, seeing as it was a random Thursday in October, the lot was only about half full and we didn’t have any issues on that front.
We packed a sack full of water, breakfast and flashlights, then headed on our way. Shining the light across the street, we were pretty confident that we’d found the correct path to journey up on.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail
The first hour of the trail was significantly easier than I’d expected it to be. With a wide path and a very gradual incline, as far as I was concerned, we were just taking a pitch black stroll through the woods. I listened closely for any rustling in the forest. The trail has been known to be home to many creatures, including bears and snakes. However, I tried to push that thought out of my mind and kept chugging along.
As we got further up, a section of trees opened up, giving us a dazzling view of the city lights far across the valley. Matching their twinkling, was a full array of dancing stars above us, shining brightly. The moon was as full as a sheep ready for a sheer, although I was half-expecting to see the silhouette of a coyote howling in front of it.
Not too much longer, we approached the merge between the Firehouse Trail and the Appalachian Trail. This meant that we’d already completed three miles nonchalantly, and only had one left until we reached the peak. However, this also meant that we’d be moving onto the most difficult part of the trail.
Now, following the white blazes carefully, as to not get lost on the thin, winding trail, we were excited. I checked the time and saw that ten minutes had already passed. We must be getting close. I figured it may just be around the next corner. Rearing it, I was greeted with nothing more than another white blaze. This continued on for about fifteen more minutes. By this, of course, I mean me tricking myself into thinking I was closer than I actually was to keep up the pace.
Reaching McAfee Knob
Alas, one hour and thirty minutes after we began the climb, we’d reached McAfee Knob in all of its glory. It was just before 6:30 in the morning at this point and I felt quite accomplished knocking off four miles uphill before the sun came to say hello.
There were only three other groups of people up here this morning—we practically had the place to ourselves. I say groups because one of the groups consisted solely of a man with a reclining chair enjoying the view. How he lugged that up here was beyond me. Besides him, there was a family of four—a mom and her three shivering, giggling children huddled under a blanket and a couple with a confused dog in each hand. I wonder if they were aware that they’d be trudging up to one of the most sought-after hikes in America this morning.
Witnessing the Sunrise
Looking outward at the valley, the sun was just beginning to show a vibrant ruby streak between the cumulus clouds. I followed a narrow rocky path lining the cliff, grabbing onto various spiked branches and jutting roots to keep balance while disappearing onto the other side of the peak. Here, I could see everything. A lone car led the way with its headlights far below, swerving through the trees on the winding road. To my right, a small city nestled in the hills, its street lamps illuminating the sidewalks for anyone else who dared to wake up this early.
As the sun began to get close enough to be call risen, I made my way back to McAfee Knob itself. The rest of the people had now disappeared onto the other side, leaving this paradise for me. Standing on the edge, I watched the first golden beam of light shoot from behind the mountains and across the valley. The birds began to chirp and whistle as the dark abyss below transformed into an infinite sheet of billowing broccoli heads.
It was at this moment that I decided I, myself, would walk the Appalachian Trail—the whole thing, all 2,190 miles. Though it may not be tomorrow, or even next year, I promise you, I will make it on that trail. It’s way too tempting to only have one bite of this rich entree without finishing it.
Descending on the Appalachian Trail
The way back down was much harder than I expected it to be, since we took the full Appalachian Trail this time. Surprisingly, down seemed to be a bit of an overstatement because I swear I spent even more time walking uphill on this path than I did on my way up to the viewpoint. After a while, we heard a clank.
“What was that? It sounded like a pot.”
Sure enough, on the next hill we climbed over, was a thru-hiker making himself some breakfast in one of the cabins. More and more people seemed to pass by us on this hill and I couldn’t help but feel sorry for them. For one, they just missed probably the best sunrise of their lives and two, they were now hiking in the heat of the day. I was going “downhill” and I already had to take my sweatshirt off to cool down.
We arrived back the parking lot after an hour and a half on the Appalachian Trail. This was the same amount of time is took us to climb up to McAfee Knob, which seemed to solidify my intrusive thoughts even more.
Stranded in the Wilderness
As we approached the car, I heard an, “Uh-oh.”
Turning around, I saw a pair of empty hands and inside out pockets, none of which held a pair of car keys.
“We might have a problem. There is a possibility that the keys may have slipped out of my pocket while I was laying down to watch the sunrise up top.”
This was precisely the exact opposite of what I wanted to hear in this moment. Zipping open the backpack, I shuffled through various pockets, chucking a bag of goldfish crackers here and a granola bar there. The keys were no where to be found. I was now at the point of deciding whether we really needed a car at all today. I mean, 8 miles before 9:00AM was one thing, but 16 miles before noon is a completely different battle. A jingle pranced through the trees and I looked up.
“I guess they were zipped in my jacket pocket,” he said, the keys now dangling from his hand.
I don’t think I’d ever been more happy to see a lanyard in my life. We celebrated this win with lattes and chocolate croissants at One Love Coffee House on our way to the Luray Caverns.
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